"Runners, take your places," the announcer called through the PA system. Then, the endless drone of the meet rules began. I'd heard it a thousand times before.
Shoes snug and muscles fully stretched, I strode toward the starting line to join my team and made sure my legs stayed limber. As I did this, I glanced at the cheering fans. Mom and my younger sister Bri waved, but I didn't see Dad. Not immediately, anyway. After a quick scan, I spotted him to the right of the stands. He seemed engaged in an intense conversation with Principal Moss. I knew Moss was no joke when it came to administrating the school. Some would even say he micromanaged everything and everyone at the school, including the students. I guess that was his job. Still, Dad was the school’s athletic director. He didn't need Moss on him all the time. Dad was already overworked as he managed over twenty-five sports that regularly made it to the playoffs. Moss needed to let up for just a bit, so Dad could watch my first meet of the season.
"Timers, are you ready?" The announcer asked, which snapped me into focus.
We cheered. I knelt into position. Focusing on the run ahead helped me push the scene between Dad and Moss from my mind.
"Starters, are you ready?" asked the announcer. The announcer paused. "Runners, are you ready?"
In another instance, came a sharp pop. We were off. My legs took control, and my heart seemed to pump fresh blood into my veins. For the moment, my thoughts felt left behind at the starting line. Though Dad wasn't watching, my coach was.
I paced myself, keeping twenty strides behind my rival, another junior named Brad. He played for the Buccaneers of Patterson High and he had no clue he was about to be whooped on the track. This year I planned to take the lead in varsity. I only wished Dad was here, sharing this moment with me.
* * *
"Great job out there today," Mom said.
“Thanks,” I said as I breathed heavily.
I looked to Bri, who still hung by the bleachers, with her nose in her cell phone. I just hoped she'd managed to film the end of the meet on her phone. Around the end of the race, I had kicked it into high gear on the track. The roar of the fans still rang in my ears, and the image of Brad, slowing down seconds before the finish line, still lingered in my mind. I had breezed past him to win it all.
I smirked. Hopefully, Dad saw what happened. I looked around, but only adoring parents, doting on their kids, were here.
“Where's Dad?" I asked.
"I'm sorry, honey,” Mom said sadly. “Dad had something Principal Moss wanted him to attend to."
I shrugged, but my mood dampened slightly. "No biggie.” Before I could figure out where Dad went, Nate Wilson, my best friend, approached. Beside him, came Janice Kane. She was his girlfriend, our fellow classmate, and Alissa Claude's best friend.
"Hey, Mrs. Kahale," Nate and Janice said in unison. They both waved to my mom.
Mom chatted with Janice and Nate. As activities committee chair on the PTSA, Mom wanted to know everything that happened at school.
"How's the drama production coming together?" she asked.
"Fabulous," Janice said.
"Easy for you to say," Nate said as he huffed. "I'm working like a dog backstage."
Once all the pleasantries were done, I looked around. There was no sign of Alissa. "Janice, where's Alissa?” I asked. “Her game should've been over already."
"You know, Marc," Janice said, "there is a thing called a cell phone."
My face grew hot. "I just —"
"Kidding," Janice said with a smile and a twinkle in her eye. "You really do take things literally. She's running late. Check your messages."
When my phone turned on, I caught a quick text from Alissa.
Alissa: In overtime. Running late. Cya. Hugs.
I blushed. Alissa and I were also a thing and we grew up together. Getting to the first kiss was, well, more than a little awkward, but maybe I was overthinking it. I hoped we’d get to kiss when our families went to the beach for the upcoming Labor Day weekend.
Nate socked me lightly in the arm, which made me jump.
“Are you okay?” he asked jokingly.
"I'm good, yeah," I said. "Alissa's in overtime."
"Told ya," Janice said. "You're gonna have to get a move on, though. She'll be here soon. I'll meet you guys at the parking lot after Marcus gets cleaned up, okay?”
Nate and I parted ways with Janice and Mom. Bri was still on the bleachers. She stood, raised her arm, and took a duck face selfie on her phone. Then, she bounded down the bleachers to join Mom. I shook my head. My one shred of hope that Bri had video evidence of my victory today disappeared. She could make any moment into a photo op for her vast following on Instagram.
* * *
As we headed to the locker room, we passed the flimsy ticket collection booth. The booth was a shed with faded cream paint that usually got repainted before the season started each year. Dad said it would be replaced with a permanent structure over the summer before the ticketed sports season began. But, the renovation still hadn't happened.
"Check that out," Nate said. He glanced behind us.
“That’s weird,” I said. I looked and saw the doors were open. "Dad always keeps this area locked, even when there's nothing inside. Let's check this out."
As I approached, I saw the lock had been broken. A piece of it was lying in the grass. More disturbing, cabinet drawers and their contents had been tossed about the floors.
“Looks like a break in,” Nate offered.
"I don't know why," I said. "There couldn't have been anything valuable inside."
Nate reached in his pocket. "What about game tickets?"
I shook my head. "He keeps those in his office. Do you think this is what Moss was worked up about?"
“Probably.” He pulled out a pen and handed it to me. "Here, I'll keep watch from outside."
I gripped the pen. "What's this for?"
As I felt the weight of aluminum in my hand, I noticed the pen point. I clicked the button, which turned on a flashlight. Now, I realized Nate had handed me a tactical pen.
Someone must have stepped up their gadgets, I thought. I set my bag down and entered the shed; its interior illuminated by the glow of the flashlight.
As I searched the room, I saw nothing but tissue boxes, notebooks, and a few old ledgers strewn across the floor. If there was anything valuable in here, which I doubted, it was gone now.
"Marcus," Nate whispered. "We've got to get a move on. Security's coming."
Exiting the booth, I saw Nate already had my bag over his shoulder. A hundred yards away, two security guards ran towards us, closing the distance too quick for my comfort.
Together, we jogged toward the parking lot. Security shouted at us to come back. But we ignored them, hoping they didn't catch a glimpse of us. No way I wanted to answer for a crime I didn't commit.
Our feet hit the parking lot, where I spotted Nate’s Jeep. Janice stood in the front seat, her arms flailing as we ran faster to reach her. “Hurry up, you two!” She shouted.
I hopped in the back of the Jeep, while Nate keyed the ignition. He peeled out of the parking lot before Janice or I could even buckle-up.